Few sports have proven themselves to be as reliably cinematic as boxing. It’s a duel between two individuals, and as such, the matches are always intensely personal. It’s no wonder, then, that boxing has been a subject of moving pictures since basically the second they were created, and has even been central to several major video games.
In that time, though, some movies, from Raging Bull to the upcoming Creed III, have really expanded what a boxing movie can do. Some of these movies focus on real people, and others on invented figures, but each of them is a thrilling sports spectacle, and that’s what made all of them worthy of this list.
It wouldn’t feel right to put together a list like this without honoring one of the greatest athletes to ever compete in the sport. Michael Mann’s Ali is not often viewed as one of his best works, but its documentary realism takes us through all of the major moments in the champ’s life.
Although we get plenty of time inside the ring, Ali also focuses on the boxer’s political and spiritual awakening and the way that only seemed to strengthen his work inside the ring. Ali is also one of Will Smith’s definitive performances, even if it didn’t quite win him the Oscar.
A lean, mean, drama from Robert Wise, The Set Up is perhaps more focused on its characters than any other movie on this list. The movie follows an aging boxer on the verge of retirement who is spending the hours before his last match contemplating whether he wants to take a dive.
It’s one of the dilemmas a boxer comes up against, but Wise never makes the movie feel played out or corny. Instead, he focuses on the decisions of this one guy, and how they’ll eventually determine what kind of future awaits him.
Loosely adapting the true story of the Ward brothers, The Fighter is about family as much or perhaps even more than it’s about boxing. Both men were welterweight boxers from Lowell, Mass., and Dicky once showed a lot of promise in the ring. Ultimately, though, he succumbed to a crack addiction and he now works as a trainer to his brother Micky.
What makes The Fighter great, though, is that its triumphs are all interpersonal. It’s a movie about a family making room for one another, and the performances are terrific across the board.
It is based on the famous career of Primo Carnera, which was one of the most corrupt in the history of sports. A foreign fighter whose fights are fixed without his knowledge, as the mob figures surrounding him take him all the way to the top, but siphon off most of his winnings as he goes.
Our central fighter winds up highly vulnerable, discovering that the world he thought he knew was built on lies. And, because his money was not his own, all of the glory he winds up with doesn’t add up to all that much.
One of the few boxing movies to actually win Best Picture, Million Dollar Baby deserved every single plaudit that came its way. Following Hilary Swank as a female boxer who insists on being trained by Clint Eastwood’s aging, weary trainer, the movie delivers on both triumph and heartbreak.
The material in Million Dollar Baby could easily feel maudlin, but Eastwood’s direction gives it such a deft touch that it feels anything but. This story ends in tragedy, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to love about the journey.
Taking Rocky Balboa out of the ring seemed like a recipe for disaster for Ryan Coogler, but we had nothing to worry about. With Creed, Coogler managed to give new life to the franchise, using Rocky and Apollo Creed’s legacy as the foundation for a new story.
Michael B. Jordan’s central performance is perfectly calibrated, giving us a sense of wounded vulnerability that has to be carefully guarded inside the ring. Stallone himself is even better, shifting into the mentor role without missing a single step.
Sylvester Stallone’s story of a Philly boxer who manages to hold his own in the ring with a world champ, Rocky is everything you could possibly want from a sports movie. What you might forget, though, is that Rocky also relishes the details of its titular character’s small, sad life.
Everything about the movie has become a cliche in the years since its release, but Rocky itself remains almost startlingly powerful. It’s no wonder the movie spawned a franchise that is still running to this day.
Martin Scorsese’s career cannot be boiled down to a single film, but this may be the pinnacle of his collaboration with Robert De Niro. Raging Bull tells the story of Jake LaMotta, an incredible boxer who was also a functional alcoholic and regularly abused his wife.
The film works because Scorsese doesn’t shy away from any of the more disturbing parts of LaMotta’s life. De Niro’s commitment to the role only makes the film feel more vibrant and lived in, but this isn’t a typical story of sports triumph. Raging Bull is willing to be a whole lot uglier than that.
- Who is the best Spider-Man actor? All the Spider-Men, ranked
- The Expendables 4 producers on returning to the franchise and the state of action movies
- 8 best Hulu true crime shows and movies to watch in September
- Gran Turismo isn’t very good, but I want more movies like it
- Superhero movies aren’t events anymore